2016 NFL Preview: Broncos GM John Elway has a big challenge

Shutdown Corner

Shutdown Corner is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per day in reverse order of our initial 2016 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 6, the day before the Hall of Fame Game kicks off the preseason.

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The Denver Broncos were a strange Super Bowl champion.

I’m not trying to take away their trophy. They won it, and for good reason. The defense will go down among the great championship defenses in NFL history. Von Miller had the greatest individual performance by a defensive player in Super Bowl history.

But when we look back on the 2015 Broncos, they’ll look much different than almost every other champion of this era.

The Broncos were hard to watch on offense most of the time. The quarterback play, as a whole, was terrible. Denver ranked 31st in the NFL in passer rating. They were the only playoff team last season with a negative turnover margin, which happened because their quarterbacks threw a ton of interceptions. It was unimaginable that Peyton Manning could have such a horrible final season, but he did and still went out with a championship.

In Super Bowl 50, the Broncos had just 194 yards, the lowest total for any Super Bowl winner. Denver was 1-of-14 on third-down conversions. Late in the game, with just a six-point lead, Gary Kubiak ordered three runs and a punt. You can argue the 2015 Broncos were the weakest of Manning’s four Broncos teams. Maybe they were owed one by the football gods.

The Broncos were lucky, too. Everyone hates when you use the term “luck” in regards to football outcomes, but many close NFL games are determined by luck — a 50-50 play will go your way, a fumble will bounce this way instead of that, whatever. You can look back at most one-possession NFL games and determine which fortunate break swung it. Over time, luck in close games usually evens out, or close to it. Last season, the Broncos were 11-2 in games decided by a touchdown or less, including playoffs. Denver had an edge in close games because of its tremendous defense, but that’s still an insane record. No other NFL team won more than seven close games last season.

The fortune continued in the playoffs. In the Broncos’ first playoff game, the Pittsburgh Steelers were controlling the game until running back Fitzgerald Toussaint — playing only because Le’Veon Bell and DeAngelo Williams were out (all-world receiver Antonio Brown was injured too) — fumbled in Broncos territory in the fourth quarter. The game turned after that. The Broncos survived a two-point conversion attempt in the final seconds of the AFC championship game against the New England Patriots. It’s also worth mentioning the Broncos were hosting that game due to overtime wins against the Patriots and Cincinnati Bengals. And in the Super Bowl, the Panthers trailed by only six points in the fourth quarter when Cam Newton wound up to throw to a wide-open Devin Funchess running deep. Take a look:

(NFL.com screen shot)
(NFL.com screen shot)

But Miller knocked the ball out before Newton could throw it, the Broncos recovered and sealed the win shortly after. Had the Panthers blocked Miller for another half second, maybe the Super Bowl goes Carolina’s way.

But those things did happen. Toussaint fumbled and the Broncos finally came alive. Denver knocked away Tom Brady’s two-point conversion pass. Miller got to Newton before he could take his shot downfield. Nobody is rewriting history. But all these things matter when we talk about the 2016 Broncos. It’s crazy to think they’ll get all those breaks again.

Repeating will be hard. The Broncos aren’t too far down in these rankings because the defense is incredible and the quarterback play likely can’t be worse. But it’s already clear that general manager John Elway has a challenge ahead of him.

[Yahoo Fantasy Football is open for the 2016 season. Sign up now]

Elway did a tremendous job building a championship team. He’s one of the best GMs in the NFL, and the first all-time great quarterback in NFL history to truly excel as a GM or coach. You can’t say he got lucky to land Manning, because he closed the deal and he had the faith that Manning could rebound from multiple neck surgeries. But it made the job easier. Keeping the Broncos at a championship level might be harder than getting them there in the first place.

This was Elway’s first rough offseason. Here’s a list of what went wrong:

• Negotiations between the Broncos and Miller got contentious, and why? According to Yahoo’s Charles Robinson, Miller was ready to accept less than $70 million guaranteed in February. The Broncos balked. Negotiations became public. The Broncos dug in. Then Miller got $70 million guaranteed anyway. And don’t think other Broncos players didn’t take notice of how nasty it became. It turned out to be unnecessary and it ultimately cost the Broncos.

•  Elway screwed up C.J. Anderson’s tender. Some Broncos fans made excuses for Elway in this case, but he flat out made a mistake. Great GMs make mistakes. It happens. The Broncos gave Anderson the low tender, meaning they’d get no draft pick compensation if a team signed him as a restricted free agent. A second-round tender would have cost only $900,000 more. Miami, without the concern of having to give a second-round pick if they signed Anderson, gave him a four-year, $18 million offer sheet. The Broncos matched. Instead of a $2.55 million second-round tender offer, Anderson has a $6 million cap hit this year. It was a miscalculation.

• Why did the Broncos alienated Brock Osweiler? As Robinson reported, Osweiler “had time to sit and stew” when the Broncos refused to negotiate with him before getting Manning’s decision on retirement. Nobody in Denver thought Manning was going to return to the Broncos in 2016, even if he wanted to play again. Perhaps if the Broncos had committed to Osweiler right after the season, thanking Manning for what he had done but making it clear they wanted to re-sign Osweiler, he might not have gone to Houston. Maybe he would have left anyway because the Texans gave him a ton of money, but it was an odd misstep (though after an offseason of quarterback roulette, Elway lucked out when Paxton Lynch fell far enough in the draft that Denver could trade up and get him without giving up too much).

Can’t fault Elway for other players leaving. Defensive end Malik Jackson got a ton of money with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Linebacker Danny Trevathan cashed in with the Chicago Bears. That’s life as a Super Bowl champion. But it’s another reminder that building was hard, and staying at a championship level might be harder.

The Broncos had a tough offseason. There’s no way around it. When the highlight is re-signing C.J. Anderson, and even that cost millions after a miscalculation on his tender, then it hasn’t been an easy run since Super Bowl 50. They lost a ton of top-end talent. The offseason will look a lot better if first-round pick Paxton Lynch becomes a superstar, but until then there’s only one possible grade. Grade: F

John Elway (L) and Gary Kubiak with President Barack Obama at the White House this offseason (AP)
John Elway (L) and Gary Kubiak with President Barack Obama at the White House this offseason (AP)

The Broncos finished first in the NFL in yards allowed per rushing attempt and first in yards allowed per passing attempt. We talked earlier in the series about how the New Orleans Saints finished last in both categories, which meant they did absolutely nothing well on defense. Well, the Broncos did everything well on defense. There was no weakness. Even without Malik Jackson and Danny Trevathan (or if Aqib Talib ends up getting suspended for the strange saga of him being shot in the leg in Dallas), this should be the best defense in football again.

If their regular starting quarterback had a 67.9 passer rating and they still won a Super Bowl, it can’t get worse this season. Technically that should be true, but why does it seem like it can get worse? Mark Sanchez is probably going to be the starter. I’m confused by the “Trevor Siemian might start!” narrative the team has pushed over the past two months. If a 2015 seventh-round pick who has never thrown an NFL pass is the starter for a defending Super Bowl champion, either the Broncos hit the draft jackpot (then you have to ask, why didn’t they know that when they offered Brock Osweiler a huge deal or traded up for Paxton Lynch?) or this offseason was a bigger debacle than we first thought. It’s not a great sign for Lynch that he finished minicamp as the No. 3 quarterback. The offense was bad in 2015, and while it probably won’t get worse, it’s tough to sustain success with a group that can’t move the ball. It’s hard to do things like win 11 close games two straight seasons.

I’m not buying the Trevor Siemian noise (why are the Broncos pushing that story so hard?). And we all know who Mark Sanchez is at this point. The bigger question is when does Paxton Lynch get his chance, and is he the long-term answer? I don’t anticipate Lynch getting a redshirt season. If he doesn’t play, it probably reflects poorly on him. First-round picks rarely sit anymore, especially if they’re behind guys like Sanchez and Siemian. Lynch seems like a great fit for coach Gary Kubiak’s offense, as a big quarterback who throws well on the move. He was also considered to be a raw prospect coming out of Memphis, so that could be an issue. I get the feeling like the Broncos’ season will start when Lynch gets his chance. It might be sooner than we think.

When you give a defensive player $70 million guaranteed, he’s the most important player on your roster. But let’s go to No. 2 because there’s not much to say about Von Miller other than: Hey, he’s great. Demaryius Thomas strikes is integral to the Broncos’ fortunes this season. He had 105 catches for 1,304 yards last season, but if you watched the Broncos enough you know Thomas was a bit off. Perhaps it was the added pressure from a big contract signed in the offseason, or getting a late start after sitting out all offseason as a franchise-tagged player. By the end of the season, Emmanuel Sanders seemed like he was a bigger part of Denver’s game plans, or at least equal to Thomas. Thomas dropped a lot of passes and wasn’t the same receiver. If Thomas rebounds to his peak form it would help whoever is quarterback for the Broncos. And he should return to that form. Even in a down year, Thomas wasn’t bad.

Cosell: “I think when you watch the tape, you saw the dilemma between the fact that Peyton [Manning] is far more comfortable controlling the game at the line of scrimmage and being in the shotgun, and [Gary] Kubiak wants his quarterback primarily to be under center, certainly in normal down-and-distance situations, and have the run game be the foundation. There’s just something different about the run game when your quarterback is under center than when he’s in the shotgun, and I think that Kubiak offense with the outside zone, that’s an under-center run game. And that’s what they’ll go back to this year.”

[Click here for Greg Cosell’s podcast previewing the Broncos and the rest of the AFC West.]

Buy into the C.J. Anderson post-hype. After a breakthrough half season with the Broncos in 2014, many fantasy owners extracted a kidney to acquire the burly back in drafts last year. Unfortunately, myriad injuries, a porous run-blocking line (No. 23 in power rank) and an eventual RBBC with Ronnie Hillman cost investors dearly. As a result, Anderson, largely drafted as a back-end first rounder last August, bottomed out at RB27 in standard leagues.

A bitter taste still lingers for many, but at his slashed 37.9 ADP (RB13), it’s wise to wash away the ill will. Though Devontae Booker will be in the mix, I’m confident Anderson nets at least 17-18 touches per game this fall in a Kubiak offense that typically features a workhorse back. Because of Anderson’s toughness between the tackles, useful hands and superior pass-blocking skills, he’ll leave the field rarely.

Yes, Denver’s offensive line appears sketchy and the pass game will do little to thin boxes, but Anderson’s potential for 300-plus touches says invest happily in Round 3. This is the year he delivers a top-10 line.

[Yahoo Fantasy Football is open for the 2016 season. Sign up now]

In Gary Kubiak’s first 20 seasons as a head coach or offensive coordinator, his teams finished in the top 10 in rushing offense 14 times, and also had a 12th- and 13th-place finish. Kubiak is underrated as an offensive coach, and his calling card has always been a great run game. Last season, the Broncos’ run game was just OK. Denver finished 17th in rushing yards, 11th in average per carry and 20th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA per-play metric. Part of the problem was the offense was tailored to fit Peyton Manning’s desire to be in the shotgun, which isn’t Kubiak’s preferred style. Denver also had holes on the line, and C.J. Anderson got off to a poor start. Anderson is back and his challenge is putting together four good months and not just two at the end. Kubiak’s history tells us that his offense, with the quarterback under center most of the time, will produce an effective run game.

WITH VON MILLER’S DEAL DONE, WILL THE BRONCOS EXTEND EMMANUEL SANDERS NEXT?

I’m not sure how the Broncos did it, but in 2014 they signed Sanders to a three-year, $15 million deal with just $6 million guaranteed. Underpaid much? Sanders became one of the Broncos’ core players, and now comes the hard part: signing him to an extension.

Sanders is probably in line to get roughly what Allen Hurns made. Hurns signed a deal worth $10 million a year with the Jacksonville Jaguars this offseason. That’s a big commitment for a Broncos team that already has a lot of money tied up in fellow receiver Demaryius Thomas. Sanders will be 30 next season. The Broncos aren’t in terrible salary cap situation for 2017 (a little less than $40 million under the projected cap, according to OverTheCap.com), but it still might be a tricky contract given Sanders’ age. Still, it seems like the two sides can probably get a deal done.

The Broncos can repeat as champs. They won’t get all the breaks they got last season, but the defense will keep them in every game. Maybe this year the Broncos have a top-10 running game and can take some pressure off the defense.

The defense lost two fantastic players, so it might slip a little. Even so, the defense will be fine. The Broncos will get into trouble if the offense isn’t any better and the record in close games evens out a bit. The AFC West is getting tougher — Denver needed a second-half rally in Week 17 to hold off the Kansas City Chiefs for the division crown — and we’ve seen Super Bowl teams struggle the following year. The Broncos won’t fall apart but a playoff spot isn’t guaranteed if the offense doesn’t improve.

I’m giving the Broncos the benefit of the doubt and picking them to win the AFC West, unless it becomes clear through August that the quarterback situation is the worst in the NFL. And it might be. If the Trevor Siemian hype comes to fruition and he is picked to start, I’m out. But the Broncos have a solid foundation, and they’re sick of hearing that they can’t repeat. They won’t win another Super Bowl this season, but they’re not sliding into obscurity either.

32. Cleveland Browns
31. San Francisco 49ers
30. Tennessee Titans
29. San Diego Chargers
28. New Orleans Saints
27. Philadelphia Eagles
26. Atlanta Falcons
25. Miami Dolphins
24. Los Angeles Rams
23. Chicago Bears
22. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
21. Detroit Lions
20. Indianapolis Colts
19. Jacksonville Jaguars
18. Washington Redskins
17. Buffalo Bills
16. Baltimore Ravens
15. Oakland Raiders
14. New York Jets
13. New York Giants
12. Houston Texans
11. Dallas Cowboys
10. Minnesota Vikings
9. Kansas City Chiefs

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Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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